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Social Problems
Darryl Hall
Department of Sociology
University of Nevada, Reno

Population and Urbanization

Demography is the study of the size, composition, and distribution of human populations

• A population is all the people living in a specified geographic area.

• During the past fifty years, the world’s population has more than doubled, growing from 2.5 billion in 1950 to over 6 billion today (80 million persons annually). At this rate, the world population will double again in the next 50 years.

• Even today, more than 1 billion of the world’s people do not have enough food and lack basic health care. Will the earth’s resources be able to support a larger population?


Fertility refers to the number of children born to an individual or a population.

• The most basic measure of fertility is the crude birth rate—the number of live births per 1,000 people in a population in a given year. The crude birth rate is used to gauge fertility because it is based on the entire population and does not take into account the variables that affect fertility, such as age and marital status.

• In 1998, there were 3.9 million live births in the United States, yielding a crude birth rate of 14.4 per 1,000. This rate was down slightly from 16.6 per 1,000 in 1990.

• Despite a worldwide drop in fertility rates, population is increasing, with the world adding 78 million more people every year—the population of France, Greece, and Sweden combined—or the equivalent of a city the size of San Francisco every three days! Each day in 2000, there were 359,000 births and 149,000 deaths, resulting in a net gain of 210,000 humans added to the planet. At the current rate, demographers expect the world population to be nearly 9 billion by mid-century, about 50% more people than in 2000.

• The level of fertility in a society is associated with social, as well as biological factors. For example:

- Countries that have high rates of infant and child mortality often have high birth rates. By having many children, parents in these nations are more likely to see a few of them survive to adulthood.

- In nations without social security systems to provide old-age insurance, parents may view children as an “insurance plan” for their old age.

- In patriarchal societies, having many children—especially sons—is proof of manliness.

- In cultures in which religion dictates that children are God-given and family planning is forbidden because it “interferes with God’s will,” many more children are usually born.


Mortality refers to the number of deaths in a specific population

• The simplest measure of mortality is the crude death rate—the number of deaths per 1,000 people in a population in a given year.

• The infant mortality rate is the number of deaths of infants under one year of age per 1,000 live births in a given year.

• In many nations, mortality rates have declined significantly as diseases (e.g., malaria, polio, cholera, tetanus, typhoid, and measles) have been virtually eliminated by vaccinations and improved sanitation.

Life Expectancy

• Demographers also study life expectancy, the estimated average lifetime of people born in a specific year. Life expectancy can vary depending on:

1) Nation -- In 1998, the life expectancy at birth for a person born in the U.S. was 76.1 years, compared to 80 years in Japan and less than 50 years in the African nations of Burundi, Chad, Rwanda, and Uganda.

2) Sex -- Females born in the United States in 2000 have a life expectancy of about 80 years, whereas men born in that year have a life expectancy of about 73 years.

3) Race -- African American men, for example, have a life expectancy at birth of about 65 years, compared to 74 years for white males.


Migration refers to the movement of people from one geographic area to another

• Migration can be voluntary (usually due to economic “push” and “pull” factors) or involuntary (forced migration due to war or other social conflict)

Immigration involves the movement into a geographic area, frequently to take up residency; emigration refers to the movement of people out of a geographic area

• Today, about 900,000 people enter the U.S. each year

• More than 23 million people live outside their countries of origin

Population Composition

Population Composition refers to the biological and social characteristics of a population, including such attributes as age, sex, race, marital status, education, occupation, income, and size of household.

• The sex ratio is the number of males compared to the number of females

• In the United States, there are approximately 96 males to 100 females, due to women’s high life expectancy

• In India, there are approximately 107 males for every 100 females because women are more likely to abort female fetuses and parents may provide less care for female children

Malthusian Theory of Population Growth

• In 1798, Thomas Malthus argued that the global population, if left unchecked, would exceed the available food supply.

• While the population increases in a geometric (exponential) progression (e.g., 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, . . . ), food production would increase only arithmetically (e.g., 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, . . . )

• Disaster, according to Malthus, could only be averted by positive checks (e.g., famine, disease, and war) or preventive checks (e.g., sexual abstinence before marriage and delay of marriage) to limit people’s fertility.

Demographic Transition Theory

• According to demographic transition theory, societies move from high birth rates and death rates to relatively low birth and death rates as a result of technological development. The demographic transition takes place in four stages:

1) Preindustrial Stage – characterized by little population growth; high birth rates are offset by high death rates

2) Transitional or Early Industrial Stage – characterized by significant population growth as the birth rate remains high but the death rate declines because of new technologies that improve health, sanitation, and nutrition

3) Mature Industrial Stage – characterized by declining birth rate as people control their fertility with various forms of contraception, and the death rate declines as medicine and other health care technologies control acute and chronic diseases.

4) Postindustrial Stage – characterized by very slow or no population growth, as a decreasing birth rate is coupled with a stable death rate

• Proponents of the demographic transition theory believe that technology can overcome the dire predictions of Malthus. Critics, however, point out that not all nations go through all the stages or in the manner outlined. They think that demographic transition theory explains development in Western societies but not necessarily in others (e.g., China is in the process of significantly reducing its birth rate but only because of the government’s mandated one child per family policy, not because of technological advances or urbanization).

Zero Population Growth

• With zero population growth, there is a totally stable population, one that neither grows nor decreases from year to year because births, deaths, and migration are in perfect balance.

• The United States is nearing zero population growth because of several factors:

1) A high proportion of women and men in the labor force find satisfaction and rewards outside of family life
2) Birth control is inexpensive and readily available
3) The trend is toward later marriage
4) The cost of raising a child from birth to adulthood is rising rapidly
5) Schools and public service campaigns make teenagers more aware of how to control fertility


• A metropolitan area or metropolis is a densely populated core area, together with adjacent communities. The largest city in each metropolitan areas is designated as the “central city.” Current standards require that each newly qualifying metropolitan area must include at least one city or urban area with at least 50,000 residents and a total metropolitan population of at least 100,000.

• As of June 1998, there were 256 metropolitan areas in the United States; one U.S. state, New Jersey, is entirely occupied by metropolitan areas.

• The United States is an urban nation, with four out of five Americans living in metropolitan areas. Within these metropolitan areas, there has been a dramatic population shift from the cities to the suburbs. Those who move to the suburbs are predominantly upper middle class, middle class, and to a lesser extent working class whites.

Urban sprawl refers to the low-density, automobile dependent development outside the central city. Urban sprawl absorbs farmland at a rate of about 50 acres an hour in the U.S., an area the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island every 10 years.

Consequences of Urban Sprawl:

1) Environmental Effects – include the disruption of wildlife habitats, the altering of rivers and streams, and pollution.

2) Racial and Class Segregation – concentrated areas of poor housing and squalor in heavily populated urban areas are called slums. A slum section of a city occupied primarily by a minority group is referred to as a ghetto. U.S. minorities, who are disproportionately represented among the poor, tend to be segregated in concentrated areas of low-income housing. The fact that minorities so not have the resources to move out of inner-city neighborhoods results in involuntary segregation—whites move out, leaving nonwhites behind.

3) Declining Quality of Urban Life – as a result of the loss of tax revenue, the quality of housing, education, health care, and other social institutions declines.

Strategies for Action: Saving Our Cities

• A number of strategies have been proposed and implemented to restore prosperity to U.S. cities and well-being to their residents, businesses, and workers, including strategies to attract new businesses, create jobs, and repopulate cities.

1) The Empowerment zone/Enterprise community program (EZ/EC) provides tax incentives and performance grants and loans to create jobs for residents living within the designated zone or community. These empowerment zones stimulate the local economy, provide jobs for the unemployed, and increase city revenues. They also provide funds for job training, child care, and transportation to enable impoverished adults to work.

2) Community-based urban renewal efforts are grassroots programs which involve small-scale developers and volunteers working with a small professional staff who are concerned with improving the community. For example, 26,000 volunteers spent a Saturday cleaning Detroit streets, parks, and playgrounds during the fourth annual spring Clean Sweep campaign. In Detroit’s annual Paint the Town event, individuals, community organizations, and corporate volunteers fix and paint the homes of the poor and elderly.

3) Gentrification and incumbent upgrading improve decaying neighborhoods, which attracts residents as well as businesses. Gentrification is a type of neighborhood revitalization in which middle- and upper-income persons buy and rehabilitate older homes in a depressed neighborhood. They may live there or rent to others. The city provides tax incentives for investing in old housing with the goal of attracting wealthier residents back into these neighborhoods and increasing the tax base. However, low-income residents are often forced into substandard housing as less and less affordable housing is available. An alternative to gentrification is incumbent upgrading, in which aid programs help residents of depressed neighborhoods buy or improve their homes and stay in the community.

Sociological Perspectives of Urbanization

1) The Structural-functionalist perspective views the development of urban areas as functional for societal development. Although cities initially functioned as centers of production and distribution, today they are centers of finance, administration, education, and information.

- The expansion of urban areas, although functional, also leads to increased rates of anomie, or normlessness, as the bonds between individuals and social groups weaken. While in rural areas social cohesion is based on shared values and beliefs, in urban areas social cohesion is a consequence of specialization and urbanization spurred by increased social diversity. Thus, urbanization leads to higher rates of deviant behavior (including crime, drug addiction, and alcoholism). Functionalists argue that these increased rates are an indication of social disorganization of the area. The functionalist perspective also examines other dysfunctions of urbanization, including overcrowding, poverty, and environmental destruction.

2) The Conflict perspective emphasizes the role of power, wealth, and the profit motive in the development and operations of urban areas. Capitalism requires that the production and distribution of goods and services by centrally located thus, at least initially, leading to urbanization. Today, corporate multinationalism, in search of new markets, cheap labor, and raw materials, has largely spurred urbanization of the developing world.

- The conflict perspective also focuses on how policy makers and corporations base decisions that affect urban populations on economic considerations. Decisions about whether to build a mall (and where to locate it) and to tear down inner-city homes to make room for office complexes or parking decks is profit motivated. The decision maker rarely considers that residents in low-income housing will be displaced or that 200-year-old oak trees will be cut down.

3) The Symbolic interactionist perspective emphasizes how meanings, labels, and definitions affect behavior. One application of this perspective is found in efforts to change the public’s negative definitions of cities. Cities are often viewed as dangerous and crime-ridden, decaying, dirty places. These negative definitions of cities discourage people from living and vacationing in cities and deter businesses from locating there. Negative definitions of cities may also contribute to a self-fulfilling prophesy.

- The symbolic interactionist perspective also focuses on how social forces influence individuals’ self-concepts, values, and behaviors. People tend to identify with the place where they live, and this is especially true of urban dwellers. The distinctive cultures and life styles of cities shape the self-concepts, values, and behaviors of their residents.